So gauche

France’s presidential election is tearing its left apart

If Benoît Hamon finishes fifth, it could be the end of the Socialist Party as we know it
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BACK in 2002, the French Socialists suffered such a stinging defeat at a presidential election that it gave birth to a new noun. Un 21 avril, referring to the date that their candidate, Lionel Jospin, was evicted in the first round, became a term used for any shock political elimination.

Today, ahead of the first round of this year’s presidential election on April 23rd, the Socialists are bracing themselves not just for elimination from the run-off, but for a far greater humiliation, one which could call into question the party’s very survival.

Current polls put Benoît Hamon, the Socialist candidate, in a dismal fifth place. He trails not only the nationalist Marine Le Pen, the liberal Emmanuel Macron, and the traditional right’s François Fillon. In the past fortnight, Mr Hamon has also been overtaken by a far-left firebrand, Jean-Luc Mélenchon (pictured), who promises a “citizens’ revolution”. A one-time Socialist now backed by the Communist Party, the fist-clenching 65-year-old has surged to 15%, against just 10% for Mr Hamon.
 
This puts him only a couple of points behind Mr Fillon, and in a position—just possibly—to overtake the Gaullist candidate too.
In the campaign’s second televised debate on April 4th, it was the wisecracking Mr Mélenchon who delivered the memorable lines. When Mr Fillon argued that industrial relations should be decentralised to firms, Mr Mélenchon snapped: “I am not in favour of one labour code per firm, just as I am not in favour of one highway code per road.” It was a difficult debate at which to shine. All 11 official candidates took part: the five front-runners plus six others, including a Ford factory worker, a Trotskyist high-school teacher, and a former shepherd. Each had a total of 17 minutes to speak, spread over three hours. In a poll, voters judged Mr Mélenchon the most convincing, followed by Mr Macron.

In some ways, Mr Hamon’s disastrous campaign is surprising. An outsider, he seized the party’s primary in January with a handsome 59% of the vote, easing out a moderate former prime minister, Manuel Valls. His recent rally in Paris was packed. Backed by Thomas Piketty, an economist who worries about inequality, he has a programme which—though its finances do not add up—is based on creative thinking about the future of work and society in an era of automation. Mr Hamon promises, for instance, to bring in a universal basic income, which in time would pay out €750 ($800) a month to everyone, partly financed by a tax on robots. He promises a “desirable future”, in which consumerism, production and working hours are curbed, greenery flourishes and happiness, long scarce in France, breaks out everywhere.
 
Yet as Matthieu Croissandeau of L’Obs, a left-wing magazine, put it, since Socialist primary voters “were convinced they would lose the presidential election…they chose an ideal rather than a programme of government.” The closer voting day gets, the less workable Mr Hamon’s ideas seem, even to some of his white-collar constituents. A poll suggested that only 7% of voters think Mr Hamon has “presidential stature”. Gilles Finchelstein of the Fondation Jean-Jaurès, a think-tank, argues that Socialist support has not collapsed: it is just not behind the party’s candidate. Fully 42% back Mr Macron; 15% support Mr Mélenchon. By positioning himself on the left of his party, Mr Hamon has scared off centrist voters, while failing to sound combative enough for those on the far left.

Mr Hamon has lost the loyalty not just of Socialist voters, but of Socialist politicians. His protracted (and failed) efforts to do a deal with Mr Mélenchon exasperated the moderates. A former backbench rebel, he has refused to say anything nice about the past five years of Socialist government, dismaying ministers. Mr Valls and Jean-Yves Le Drian, the Socialist defence minister, have both thrown their support to Mr Macron. The upshot is a bitterly divided party. The Hamon camp called Mr Valls’s defection “pathetic” and “shameful”. It is a “very strange campaign”, says a Socialist parliamentarian loyal to Mr Hamon; party activists “don’t feel connected”.

Mr Valls’s defection, says Guillaume Balas, a member of the Hamon team, implies “the death of the Socialist Party as conceived by (François) Mitterrand”. The party, which has supplied French presidents for half of the past 36 years, has long tried to bridge the differences between its moderates and its left wing. In the 1970s, Mitterrand managed to unify the left; he went on to serve as president for 14 years. Now, under the joint pressure of Mr Macron and Mr Mélenchon, old fractures are pulling it back apart.

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